You know that feeling when you compliment someone and it just feels unnecessary? It’s like meeting Johnny Depp and telling him “I am your biggest fan”. Millions before you have said the same thing and millions after will say it as well. He knows that, you know that and the moment you say those words, they sound hollow and insufficient. Who does not admire Manoj Bajpai’s films? How do you tell him that you think he is one of the most important acting talents in this country, without sounding sycophantic or fawning? Importantly, why should he believe you?
I sit across Bhiku Mhatre in his sprawling Mumbai apartment and he looks at me, expressionless, when I compliment his body of work. I can almost hear him think “Shut the fuck up and get on with it, kid”. While Bajpai might come across as a force to reckon with on screen, he is quite an ordinary looking man when he is curled up on a couch in front of you. He has intense eyes, which hardly waver from you, looking intently, scanning, measuring you up. He is wearing a simple black t-shirt and track pants and we start the conversation with what he is up to these days. “I am doing nothing. I have finished all my films and they are in post-production. I don’t know what I am going to do next because all the scripts that I have read in the last six months have failed to interest me.” So is he enjoying this break? “I enjoy any situation,” he snaps. “I believe in destiny. I don’t plan anything. I like to plan things for my daughter’s future. I haven’t planned anything else. Things happen. You just have to go with the flow.”
At this point, I want to sound intelligent, so I ask him about the evolution of his acting process since his debut. “It keeps changing continuously – sometimes every year, sometimes every three or four years. I read a lot. I keep a track of what is happening around the world and keep adapting myself. I watch the evolution of other actors. If it doesn’t change, then there is something wrong somewhere.” He is curt, a tad bored and I am struggling to figure out what to ask him next.
I don’t want to ask the same questions about how a boy from Bihar moved to Delhi, became enamoured with acting and the stage, moved to Bombay to do cinema and struggled for almost a decade before his big break. All of us know that story. We know about his bit roles in films like Bandit Queen and Dastak, and then the back-to-back smashing performances in Satya (1998), Kaun and Shool (1999) that immediately made him a favourite with producers and the audience. Satya became a cult classic and Bajpai’s Bhiku Mhatre got him his first National Award.
He followed these films with a startlingly different performance in Zubeidaa (2001), as a psychological maniac in Aks (2001) and then he scooped up another National Award for Pinjar (2003). While he hit his career’s bedrock post 2005, his performances did stand out, even though his choice of films could be questioned. He did a few Telugu films during that period too, and when a Hindi movie actor starts taking up Telugu films, you know he is not getting much work.
I broach the subject of being stereotyped, and how he is identified by his ‘Hindi heartland’ roles. “The Hindi heartland is 90 per cent of the audience. Satya wasn’t a ‘Hindi heartland’ film. Neither was Zubeidaa, nor Special 26. The question is wrong.” I want to point out that a large number of his Bollywood roles have him playing a north Indian with a distinctive Hindi swagger, which audiences have adored and connected with, but of course my question has already been dismissed. For some reason, he seems to have the impression that I am a snooty ‘Bombay boy’ who looks down upon the ‘Hindi heartland’, and that makes me cringe.
When I persist, he says that no other actor has done the variety of roles that he has, and the question does not apply to him. I drop the subject. He does laugh and say that he does not take offence, and I am slightly confused about why he would in the first place. Is being stereotyped something he has been consciously battling throughout his career? Is that why he chose to do films like Fareb (2005), Dus Kahaniyan (2007) and Acid Factory (2008)? These were films that did not do well at all, but they were nothing like the usual sort of raw-gritty-sadistic villain roles he was being offered back then. Bajpai swung back into public consciousness with Raajneeti (2010) and Aarakshan (2011) – two extremely powerful Prakash Jha films which had him in, well, ‘Hindi heartland’-gritty-slimeball-negative roles.
And then came Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 and 2 (2012). I smile to myself. I could easily point out how his “I am the most versatile actor” argument is falling flat on its face, but I respect the man too much to do so. We start talking about Anurag Kashyap instead. “Anurag and Vishal [Bhardwaj] have been a part of the change that has happened in our industry. Other directors should learn from them. They have been steadily adapting and evolving themselves. The only thing I feel is that Vishal should just leave Shakespeare alone and do some original work again. Anurag has been a part of my journey for a really long time. He keeps surprising me, always. He might not be as technique-savvy as Dibakar [Banerjee] but his contribution to Indian cinema will be remembered forever. He has changed the way cinema should be looked at. I have learned a lot from him.”
Why did he make that shift to Bombay from Delhi? Did he get disillusioned with the theatre scene? “For money. I just wanted to be paid. After Satya, all I would get were villain roles. There would be long lull periods in my life, because becoming a villain was not a part of my dream – becoming a famous actor was. I will become a star doing what I want to do. I cannot do something to become a star. And most of the roles that I have chosen do not make you a star. Sardar Khan from Gangs does not make you a star. It just reaffirms your ability as an actor.”
By the sound of it, even his next film, Aligarh, by Hansal Mehta, seems to be a reaffirmation of Bajpai’s calibre. Based on a real life incident, Bajpai played the role of Dr. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a professor of Marathi at the Aligarh Muslim University, who was suspended for his sexual orientation in 2010, leading to him committing suicide. “I conducted workshops for myself. I used to call an assistant director who was a Marathi literature student and he helped me prepare for the role. I have seen the film. It is one of a kind in the history of Indian cinema, and I am very proud of it.”
Bajpai admires quite a few of his contemporaries, like Kay Kay Menon, and he talks highly of Kangana Ranaut and Vidya Balan. Of the young lot, he talks about Rajkummar Rao. “Look at that boy. He is getting everything at the right time. I am envious of him. We didn’t get that. He entered the industry at the right time, when you have choices to make. I have scripts lying around my house today, but that was not the case back then. I used to keep waiting for that one great script. There are many fantastic talents around today. Earlier there used to be only Tabu. Then Konkona [Sen Sharma] came along, but she chooses to do few films.”
What does his future look like? “I don’t know.” What does he want, then? “A lot of money.” What kind of roles does he want next? “I don’t know. I don’t have that clarity.” This is getting taxing now. Does he have a dream role? “No. I just wanted to play Devdas, but no one will want to do Devdas with me now.” After the interview is over, I tell him how I have been running out of questions. He laughs. “It has been over 20 years as an actor. What is left to ask me?”
This story was first published in October 2015